The End of the Road – John 18:1-19:42
So, here we are, at “the end of road.”
Our Lenten journey began on Ash Wednesday. On that day many of you knelt before a parish minister who placed the sign of the cross on your forehead with ashes, saying:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
The forty days that followed have been a spiritual journey called Lent; a time set aside for private devotion and public worship, focused on prayer, penance, and self-denial.
Our society has tried to help on our journey. Sam’s Club discounted their Cinnamon Pretzel combo; declaring it in their promotion as: “Perfect for Lent.” We’ve got one more day to take advantage of that deal. Let’s car pool!
The whole self denial thing can be hard to wrap our minds around. My friend Steve Teague was something of a troublemaker when he was young. He was kicked out of the public schools and ended up in a strict Roman Catholic parochial school. On Ash Wednesday, a Nun gathered the students to discuss what they were “giving up” for Lent. Each student reported their particular fast.
“I am giving up ice cream.”
“I am giving up chocolate.”
“I am giving up soda.”
When they came to Steve, he stood and reported: “Ma’am, we’re Baptists; we don’t give up nothin for nobody!”
Today’s gathering brings us near the end of our Lenten journey. It also reminds us that we are near “the end of the road” for Jesus. We cannot help but feel that way when we hear the lashing of the whip across his back; when we see the nails driven into his hands and feet; and as we imagine the spear being plunged into his side.
It was “the end of the road.”
Some might bristle at the thought. Some might be tempted to corner me after the service and challenge what I am saying. But I will stick to the statement. Good Friday was “the end of the road” for Jesus.
Let’s remember how it all began. Let’s focus just on the words from the Fourth Gospel.
The author writes of the Jesus, saying:
“In the beginning was the WORD, and the WORD was with God, and the WORD was God.”
“As many as received him, to them he gave the power to become sons and daughters of God.”
“The WORD became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the only begotten from Abba, full of grace and truth.”
“If you have seen me, you have seen Abba. Abba and I are one.”
“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
These words focus of Jesus’ mission and ministry.
Next the Fourth Gospel illustrates Christ’s work with some pretty incredible narratives. We read about…
…the Miracle as Cana;
…the Cleansing of the Temple;
…the Story about Nicodemus and New Birth;
…Jesus Crossing Borders to Bless Samaritans.
As we continue, we read about…
… the Healing Miracles;
…the feeding of the Thousands;
…the Teaching and Preaching of Jesus;
…the Offering of Grace and Mercy to Sinners;
…Jesus Identification as the Good Shepherd.
I could go on, but you get the point. On every level and at every turn there is hope, potential, and promise. We read expecting that something stupendous, astonishing, and fantastic is about to happen.
Then we turn the page to the reading for today and it’s not at all what we expect.
Judas, One on the Twelve, Betrays Jesus
The Roman Cohort Takes Jesus into Custody
Jesus Is Interrogated By Top Religious Officials
His Friend Peter Rejects Even Knowing Him
Jesus Taken Before Pilate
Before Pilate He Is Beaten and Abused
We can’t help but bow our head in sorrow, feeling that this is truly “the end of the road.”
We all understand what it feels like to come to “the end of the road.” Much of this life is filled with failure and futility.
I remember visiting a man in my last church shortly after his wife had died. She’d had along, drawn out battle with cancer. He met me at the door and said, “Pastor, please do not tell me how she is no longer suffering. Do not tell me she is in a better place. Today all I know is that she is gone and I will never see her again.”
That’s what it feels like at “the end of the road.”
A couple years ago, one of the young children in my congregation had a conversation with my daughter, who was then a student in college. He asked her if I (her father, the pastor) was the owner of our church.
Michelle responded, saying: “No, the church belongs to God. My dad is the preacher at the church.”
The young boy responded, “What does a preacher do? Does he KILL people?”
That’s not really that odd of a question. Our congregation has dealt with the death of nearly 75% of its membership in the last several years. Death has been an ongoing topic of conversation in our congregation.
That’s what it feels like at “the end of the road.”
There is something in your life, isn’t there? There is some area of grief. There is some feeling of loss. There is some arena of suffering and struggle. There is something that robs you of your hope and leaves you with a feeling of despair.
That’s what it feels like at “the end of the road.”
But we are not talking about you or me, are we? We are talking about Jesus. For each of us, grief comes and goes. People and institutions live and die. We don’t like that, but we understand it. But it is Jesus we are talking about. It seems so out of place to talk about Jesus reaching “the end of the road.”
So, we try to rationalize it and make excuses for it. We pretend it is not really what it is. We come to this day, to “the end of the road,” and we try to interpret this day in the light of the coming Sunday. But it does not do the trick. The cross is real. The agony we remember on this day is real. This death is real. We cannot escape its reality. We cannot jump from the Palms to the empty tomb. On this day we must declare as true the reality that Jesus the Christ came to “the end of the road.”
Let that sink in.
No amount of pretend can make it any less than what it is. No pabulum of pious rhetoric can make the tragedy of this day any less tragic. Every step along this Lenten journey has led us further down a path that end abruptly at cross.
With that in mind, we wonder how any of us could call this day GOOD. On this darkest of days, while facing the harsh and ruthless reality of the cross, what can we say to understand this day as GOOD?
Maybe we can say that God understands and even experiences with us the darkest moments of our human experience. Maybe we can pause and simply appreciate the fact that God does not remove God’s self from the reality of human brokenness, pain, suffering and sorrow.
God is Emmanuel through it all. God is with us and One with us.
When my son Michael was about seven years old, we had a conversation after attending a funeral for a seven year old boy and his father, both killed in a car crash by a drunk driver.
“Daddy, are we going to die, too?” Michael asked.
How do you answer a question like that from a seven year boy old without scaring the hell out of him?
Of course, the answer is yes. My son is going to die. I am going to die. If it is not a car crash that takes him – it will be cancer, or heart attack, or earthquake, or tsunami, or crime, or war, or maybe, if he is lucky, extreme old age.
My son is a student at Virginia Commonwealth University. He’s a student in the engineering school. Just a few days ago at VCU a young man my son’s age, and also a student in the engineering school, was shoot dead near campus.
Here’s the thing: WE ARE ALL DYING. From the moment of our conception, we begin a journey toward “the end of the road.” We are all dying.
But here is the GOOD news. God does not desert us, even when we arrive at “the end of the road.” God is with us. God weeps with us in abiding love. God knows first-hand what it means to suffer and bleed. God knows what it means to come to “the end of the road.”
What makes this Friday GOOD? It is also the discovery that the human evil expressed at the cross is NOT more powerful than God’s ability to love us. Here is what we know: Human sin did its worst on Good Friday. It poured out its venom and violence in the most horrific fashion. But the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ responded to that venom and violence with grace, mercy, and love.
This Friday is GOOD because it remind us that the LOVE of God is greater than all the evil that humanity could muster.
That means that whenever we face the reality of evil; or engage in the passionate struggle for justice; or take on the task of promoting righteousness in this broken world, or even simply dealing with the reality of our mortality; we can know that GOD is with us.
In his book The Strength to Love, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. writes about how he moved from believing things about God to believing in God. He wrote:
“The agonizing moments through which I have passed during the last few years have also drawn me closer to God. More than ever before, I am convinced of the reality of a personal God. True, I have always believed in the personality of God. But in the past the idea of a personal God was little more than a metaphysical category that I found theologically and philosophically satisfying. Now it is a living reality that has been validated in the experiences of everyday life. God has been profoundly real to me in recent years. In the midst of lonely days, and dreary nights, I have heard an inner voice saying, `Lo, I will be with you.’ When the chains of fear and the manacles of frustration have all but stymied my efforts, I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose, and that in the struggle for righteousness humanity has cosmic companionship.”
That’s the GOOD News of GOOD Friday. God is with us when things are hard. God is with us when things are at their worst. God is with us in those moments of despair when we face the reality of the cross. God is with us at “the end of the road” and God loves us through it all.
That might be all we can say on a day like today; but praise be to the God revealed in Jesus Christ, this message is enough.
Strength to Love
by: Martin Luther King Jr
publisher: Fortress Press, published: 2010-01-10
sales rank: 18381
price: $6.50 (new), $7.88 (used)
“If there is one book Martin Luther King, Jr. has written that people consistently tell me has changed their lives, it is Strength to Love.”
So wrote Coretta Scott King. She continued: “I believe it is because this book best explains the central element of Martin Luther King, Jr.’ s philosophy of nonviolence: His belief in a divine, loving presence that binds all life. That insight, luminously conveyed in this classic text, here presented in a new and attractive edition, hints at the personal transformation at the root of social justice: ” By reaching into and beyond ourselves and tapping the transcendent moral ethic of love, we shall overcome these evils.”
In these short meditative and sermonic pieces, some of them composed in jails and all of them crafted during the tumultuous years of the Civil Rights struggle, Dr. King articulated and espoused in a deeply personal compelling way his commitment to justice and to the intellectual, moral, and spiritual conversion that makes his work as much a blueprint today for Christian discipleship as it was then.
Individual readers, as well as church groups and students will find in this work a challenging yet energizing vision of God and redemptive love.